You can never find a policeman when you’re being murdered

Read spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on the British police's stand-off approach to firearm incidents.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

You can never find a policeman when you want one, they say. Being attacked by a maniac with a gun seems like one of the few circumstances in which I might really want to find one. However, recent cases suggest that the police would refuse to come anywhere near, on the ground that deranged gunmen tend to be a bit dangerous.

Thames Valley Police received a dressing-down this week over their pathetic response to the infamous ‘barbecue killings’. Stuart Horgan burst into a family barbecue, shot his estranged wife, her sister and mother, then left. Neighbours repeatedly phoned the emergency services, explaining that the gunman had gone. But the police refused to attend for more than an hour in case he was still around; armed officers waited four miles away. Ambulance crews would not enter without police. Horgan’s wife, Vicky, and her sister, Emma Walton, both died.

This week, an inquest heard that Thames Valley Police took almost seven hours to enter a house after another emergency phone call from a terrified woman hiding in a cupboard. By the time they arrived Julia Pemberton was dead, along with her teenage son William, killed by her estranged husband Alan who then shot himself.

And lest anybody think this problem is peculiar to Thames Valley, another inquest this week revealed that Sussex Police refused to go in after Linda Watson dialled 999 to say that her husband Richard had been shot outside their home. Even after a family friend took it upon himself to drive up, check Mr Watson’s dead body and report to police, they waited another hour before deciding it was safe to approach.

Mrs Watson’s solicitor told the inquest that the police were ‘cowardly’. There seems no reason to suppose that officers are personally any more cowardly today. But they are now working within what looks like a culture of moral cowardice.

The damning report into the barbecue killings reveals that in dilly-dallying rather than acting decisively, the police were only following official guidelines. A police force that is ordered not to be forceful, for fear of unknown consequences, seems an appropriate guardian of our safety-first society, which is wary of tackling anything risky. Senior police officers faffing about in the face of murder are not the only leaders reluctant to take responsibility for life-and-death decisions today.

No doubt police also fear that they might be sued by victims or prosecuted by the authorities if they take a risk. After all, wasn’t the Metropolitan Police Commissioner himself charged with breaching health and safety laws after the death of a PC who fell through a roof while chasing suspects? It’s a wonder that the police don’t insist that health and safety inspectors answer 999 calls and carry out a risk assessment of all crime scenes before they agree to tiptoe in.

Having grown up with boys who wore ACAB (All Coppers are Bastards) tattoos, I have never been a member of the law’n’order lobby. But this is the worst of all worlds. On one hand, the police are being given ever more powers (and Taser stun-guns) to interfere in people’s everyday lives and liberties. On the other, they seem paralysed in the face of mortal danger.

Thames Valley Police have now apologised for their ‘over-cautious’ response to the barbecue killings. But their more revealing initial statement insisted that police had to exercise caution ‘in order to safeguard any members of the public who could be at risk as well as the officers and other emergency service personnel who could be at the scene’. The consequence of this safety-first-and-last approach was, of course, that there were no emergency services at the scene, and members of the public were far from safeguarded. We were left no safer, but a lot more sorry.

Fortunately, there are still people prepared to act like citizens of a society and take risks to help family, friends and neighbours. It’s just that the police don’t seem to be among them. Roy Gibson, one of the neighbours who came to Vicky Horgan’s aid, said: ‘If you’d told me that me and my wife would be in that flat with the dying women for nearly an hour and a half, I’d have said you were barmy.’ So this week’s tale of our risk-averse society, which began with reports of ‘bonkers’ bans on conkers, ends with the ‘barmy’ story of armed police camped four miles away from a murder scene. You don’t have to be mad to live here, but it helps.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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